Image: Silver Dart
An artist's conception shows the Silver Dart hypersonic glider in orbit. The design is based on the FDL-7 concept, which was pioneered by the U.S. Air Force's Flight Dynamics Laboratory but discarded.
By Staff Writer
updated 2/14/2007 12:01:41 PM ET 2007-02-14T17:01:41

Even as the private spaceflight firm PlanetSpace aims for orbital space shots, the Chicago-based company is also drawing up plans for a suborbital Earth transit system.

The firm’s planned Silver Dart space plane, currently targeted at providing NASA crew and cargo services to the international space station, could be equipped with a suborbital rocket engine for point-to-point flights around Earth, PlanetSpace CEO Geoff Sheerin told

“This is the killer application for space industry,” Sheerin said. “You’ve got a destination already.”

PlanetSpace officials are planning to make their first Silver Dart demonstration launch by December 2009.

“The initial tests of that Dart are suborbital,” Sheerin said. “We’re talking about an initial test flight that might go 5,000 miles (8,046kilometers) down range, so with the Dart you can glide quite a ways.”

PlanetSpace’s Silver Dart spacecraft calls for a metal lifting body frame based on the U.S. Air Force’s Flight Dynamics Laboratory-7 and NASA’s X-24B test aircraft. The spacecraft is designed to fly at hypersonic speeds of up to Mach 22, launch atop either an orbital NOVA booster or suborbital rocket, and make a runaway landing.

PlanetSpace’s planned suborbital Silver Dart booster is reminiscent of NASA’s Little Joe rocket used during tests of the space agency’s Mercury spacecraft launch escape system.

It’s the Silver Dart’s potential glide range, more than 25,000 miles (40,233 kilometers) at hypersonic speeds, which lend it to point-to-point flights around Earth, Sheerin said.

“A flight from New York to Paris in 20 minutes is not out of the question using that system,” Sheerin said, adding that it is the longer, 16-hour flights where Silver Dart could excel. “The best uses for this vehicle are places where it might take a jet a long haul.”

Sheerin said PlanetSpace is studying plans for an initial five-vehicle fleet of Silver Dart spacecraft, each capable of making eight-passenger or unmanned cargo trips into suborbital or orbital space. Versatility, he added, is the goal.

“If they’re not flying to orbit, then I’d like to fly them point-to-point and if they’re not flying point-to-point then I’d like to be flying them on short jaunts into space on space tourist flights,” Sheerin said. “They’re flight rate will be very high.”

PlanetSpace plans to launch spacecraft from Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, and also has an agreement with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center for technical support in spacecraft and booster development.

Laying the foundation
Earlier this month, NASA announced plans to support PlanetSpace’s orbital space plane efforts by supplying specifications and advice, but no funding, for potential crew and cargo transport services to and from the the space station once the agency's shuttle fleet is retired in 2010.

The U.S. space agency also agreed to similar deal with Reston, Virginia’s Transformational Space (t/Space), while two other companies — Oklahoma’s Rocketplane Kistler and California-based Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) — are sharing the space agency’s initial $500 million Commercial Orbital Transportation System investment.

“We don’t have any agreements with them to do demonstrations to the space station,” Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office at the Johnson Space Center, told of the COTS contenders and other firms.

A subsequent COTS bid for space station services will be open to all capable parties, Lindenmoyer added.

“Our belief is that once we’re able to satisfy NASA’s requirements for going to the international space station, then all the other requirements for passengers and crew would also be satisfied,” Sheerin said.

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